She liked butterflies. The reason was that simple. There wasn’t some grand lesson about the fragility of life, or even some intended stretch toward the academic science of the thing. I simply stopped by the dry-cleaners to pick up my suit, and saw it in the window of the hobby store. The mounting kit.
I remembered going for walks by the pond where she was eye level with the Queen Anne’s Lace. The butterflies would swoop in and out as she wound her way through. She would pause periodically as they would land and push her nose right up to the ridge of the flower.
“What kind of butterfly is it, Daddy?”
“It’s a Monarch.”
They were always Monarchs. It was the only kind I knew, and some sort of all-knowing paternal ambition prevented me from hesitating. The only reason I knew about the Monarchs dated back to a college road-trip to Tijuana. The debaucherous details of which are lost to the thousands of butterflies I must have massacred across the windshield of my truck. One after another, the fragile orange bodies slapped, ticked, squashed and cracked in front of my eyes. I picked up an old field guide when I got back to school and searched the descriptions, hoping to feel some type of atonement through research, and there it was: the Monarch butterfly. Cut down en route during its yearly migration.
Nonetheless, she always seemed satisfied with this answer, smiling and reaching out a chubby finger before the butterfly glided to another flower.
It was almost Easter, and though she was getting a bit old for the Easter Bunny, it was fun to keep the tradition alive. We would use candies to create a trail from her bedroom door to various rooms in the house. Each room would have a small gift hidden inside. Toys that flew or floated. Kites, bottle rockets, gliders, frisbees. Butterflies.
We weren’t particularly religious. When she was younger we’d go to the occasional Sunday service, mostly because it was a small southern town and that was how you stayed apprised of the goings-on. Once we’d had the pastor over for dinner. He was a jolly, heavy-set man, well-liked by the community. Pastor George.
He asked for a tour of the house, commenting on all the remodeling we’d done ourselves. My wife, Annie, took the lead, excitedly pulling out all the before photos we’d taken for comparison. He paused in front of my daughter’s room, painted a robin’s egg blue with tiny flower stenciling along the baseboards. His eyes rested on the bed and the jolly smile faded from his face.
“Now Daisy, what do you have there?”
My daughter who’d been boredly lingering behind stepped forward.
“A ouija board.” She said matter-of-factly.
We’d gotten it for her at the height of her scary movie phase. I didn’t much believe in superstition, and she had seemed more interested in carrying around the planchette and peering at things through the small plastic window.
Pastor George pursed his lips and knelt down slightly.
“Daisy, Jesus doesn’t want us to play with such things. They create openings in our faith for Satan to find his way in. It’s like Peter said: Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
Daisy took a step back and fixed her gaze on the ground.
“Promise me you’ll put that away and keep it away.”
I bristled. “Pastor, it’s just a toy…”
He straightened and waved his hand before I could finish. “No mind in worrying about consulting the dead over matters of the living. Thank you so much for the wonderful meal, but I should be getting home.”
I tried to explain to Daisy that some people had different beliefs and she should do what felt right to her. The whole time she side-eyed the ouija board on the bed. I never saw it out again.
I’d put the butterflies in the last room. The grand finale.
Easter morning fell on a later month and was bright and warm. The sunlight came in through the windows, dappling on the walls, the first tendrils of a humid summer creeping in. Annie filled the house with the smell of homemade cinnamon buns, while I set to work on creating Daisy’s treasure hunt. I paused in front of Daisy’s door and listened for any stirring. She had always slept later than most children, typically catching the school bus with seconds to spare; hair only ever in a careless ponytail, backpack bouncing behind her in a dash to the edge of the driveway.
No sounds as I began laying down the jellybean trail that would lead her to each room.
The chocolate bunny in the bathroom.
Tic Tic Tic Tic
I meticulously spaced the jellybeans on the wood floor, through the hallway. Down the stairs.
Tic Tic Tic Tic
The wind-up plane on the screen porch.
This was one of my favorites. My father had always gotten me one of these each year. Though it never lasted more than an hour before inevitably soaring into some distant tree. I remember carefully extracting the wings from the surrounding wood foam. One careless move and the delicate wings would snap or splinter.
My father kneeling down as I wound the propeller, squinting up into the sun. “You have to glide it on the wind. If you do it right you don’t throw it as much as you just let go.”
The potato gun in the kitchen. Tucked carefully behind a curtain on the windowsill. The kite in our room. Obscured by pillows on the bed.
Finally, the mounting kit in the living room.
I knelt in the doorway trying to see the room through her eyes. She should work a bit harder for this one. The woodstove? Too obvious. The furniture? Already been done.
My eyes settled on the ledge of the book shelf. Just out of reach. Just tall enough for her fingertips to brush if she stood on determined tiptoes.
I pulled some books forward, mostly my wife’s gardening and interior decorating collection, and wiggled the box in behind them. She’d have to notice the slightly jutting books, then stand on a chair to investigate.
My satisfaction made me impatient and I climbed the stairs up to her room and knocked on the door before opening it slightly. She sat on the carpet in a sunbeam, pulling on a pair of socks. The combination of her long white t-shirt and blonde hair gave her a cherubic glow in the bright light. “Did the Easter bunny come?” She asked with an expectant grin.
“I don’t know, but I do see a little something out here we could investigate…”
Her grin widened as she fumbled over her second sock.
It was tricky for me to tell how much she still believed. She was at an age where the magic of childhood was still the default. Stuffed animals had opinions, the stove spoke in a rumbling demon voice threatening the safety of her fingers, a grown-up’s word was law. However, she was also at an age when kids started to talk. Last year there was a horrible and tragic murder which shook the whole town. A double shooting. Something about a will and house deed. The grandparents of one of Daisy’s classmates were shot by one of their sons. Drugs likely involved. He was quickly caught, but not before the man died. His wife survived. I remember Daisy got off the bus positively delighted with the information she had received.
“David Stokes said there was blood everywhere and that they’ll probably never get it off the walls and Mrs. Tucker will have to move when she gets out of the hospital.”
Annie and I had exchanged glances.
She continued excitedly, “And also Mr. Tucker’s last word was post office. Because he was telling Mrs. Tucker he was going to the post office before that guy broke in and shot him.”
Eager to change the subject, I had pointed Daisy into the living room to start her homework.
“Post office…post office…post office…” she muttered as she walked away, sounding out each letter with new fascination.
She was well on her way down the stairs, chocolate bunny tucked under her arm, picking up each jellybean and alternating putting them in a basket with eating them. She quickly made her way through the rooms, squealing with appropriate delight when she found each gift. Eventually she got to the living room. She dashed to all the obvious locations…energetically pulling up the sofa cushions, carefully opening the door to the woodstove and peeking in, just a crack as if she didn’t want something inside to escape, making a show of crawling under each chair. Finally, I cleared my throat: “I hear the Easter Bunny always enjoys a good book…” She giggled and followed my gaze to the bookshelf before jumping up and pressing herself into the wall, grasping for the lowest shelf. Still determined that she should earn it, I met her desperate gaze with a shrug. Pausing, she glanced wildly around the room before grabbing a large cushioned chair and pushing it below the shelf, just as planned. Climbing on top, she began tossing books left and right before her fingers brushed against the box. Clutching it to her chest, she sat on the ground among the scattered books before raising it up and contemplating the simple yellow wrapping paper. She unwrapped it surprisingly delicately. The box featured a large net swooping in on a brightly colored cartoon butterfly.
BUTTERFLY MOUNTING KIT
She looked up at me quizzically. “Like the caterpillars?” She asked, referencing a butterfly garden kit her classroom kept from a year or two before. They watched a large cup of caterpillars shift from chrysalides to butterflies, cooing and nourishing them on a diet of sugar water and fruit. Eventually they made a big show of setting them free on the school courtyard during an Earth Day assembly. Daisy had come home from school sullen. “They didn’t even ask if I wanted my butterfly set free.”
“No sweetheart, it’s different than that. You catch them and you keep them so you can learn about them. Its what scientists do.”
Daisy’s eyes lit up at this. “You keep them? Forever?”
A somewhat troubling thought entered my mind. Of course you kept them because they were dead. It wasn’t a bloody death…a few drops of some solution: formaldehyde? Acetate? And they mostly just stopped being alive. They wouldn’t cry out or rot. What was really the difference between a living butterfly and a dead butterfly after-all? Daisy would scarcely notice.
I smiled, resolved. “As long as you want.”
She spent the majority of the afternoon outside playing with the new toys. Predictably, the wind-up plane soared onto the roof, but she quickly turned her attention to the kite and the potato gun. We left the mounting kit for another day, but I saw her eyes wistfully linger on a particularly large blue butterfly in the garden.
A few days later, I was home from work early on a balmy afternoon when Daisy pulled the mounting kit onto the kitchen table and began sorting through its contents. I sat down next to her as she picked up the net and began swishing it back and forth in the air. I glanced down into the box at the remaining labeled tools. Forceps. Foam mounting board. Pins. Magnifying glass. Insect jar. Killing fluid.
Without thinking, I swiped it while Daisy was still occupied with the net.
Killing fluid? Jesus Christ. It was just so literal. Ages 6+. That’s what the box said.
“Can we catch the butterflies today?” Daisy looked up at me excitedly. I hesitated, feeling the small vial in my pocket. “It’s perfect outside and you said soon” she said bouncing in her seat. Unable to come up with any excuse on the spot, we headed out into the backyard, Daisy swatting the net with every step. I watched her dart through the garden and around the gumball trees at the edge of the property line, making exaggerated bows to look for butterflies, more excited by the hunt than anything else. I thumbed the vial in my pocket.
Do I just hand it to her? She would read it. She was above her grade in reading skills. But then what? Would she even understand what that meant? Of course mounted butterflies couldn’t be alive, but we had seen them in museums…seen the bones of Blue Whales, dinosaurs, Wooly Mammoths…giant rooms where death would slide unnoticed, behind the bright educational signs and smiling docents. Had she ever asked?
I pulled the vial out of my pocket and saw that I had rubbed off part of the label.
I began scratching away at the rest of it. It was for the best. Surely the finer details would fly by as they probably did in the museums. There was certainly no need for such austere descriptions. And a tiny butterfly was of so little consequence to begin with. I glanced up to see her stalking an orange butterfly perched on a tomato plant. I took a few steps closer.
“Don’t swing until you’re sure the net will reach” I said in a low voice. I wasn’t sure if butterflies were cautious of sounds. Do they have ears? Or do they pick up on vibrations like bats? Slowly Daisy raised the net, took one more step, then crashed the net down with such force, she tumbled down alongside it, somehow still gripping the handle.
“I got it!” she exclaimed. I knelt down alongside her, sure enough, the butterfly fluttered uselessly between net and grass. Wouldn’t you know, it was a damn Monarch. Suddenly, very aware of it’s fragile body, I took the net from Daisy with one hand then used the other to cinch off the net opening. We walked back to the house, Daisy happily leading the way to the kitchen table. “It’s a pretty butterfly, but not too full of itself…I wish it was a little bigger though” she said squinting into the net. I grabbed the jar out of the kit, and gently eased the butterfly in before quickly putting the lid back on. While Daisy was busy peering into the jar from all possible angles, I took the opportunity to discreetly pull the glass vial, now unmarked, from my pocket and place it back into the box. I then picked up the instructions.
- Place live butterfly in insect jar with lid tightly screwed on.
So far so good.
- Add 1 full eyedropper of Killing Fluid into opening of top chamber of insect jar. Butterfly should stop moving within about 1 minute and should die within 5 – 20 minutes.
There it was. No cartoon illustrations, no educational video interim. Daisy was watching me expectantly. “What now?” I chose my words carefully.
“Now we fill the eyedropper from this vial and put it into the top of the jar”. Before I had a chance to reflect, Daisy reached out for the vial and began. She had experience with vials from using food coloring while baking with her grandmother. She knew the importance of “gentle squeezes” after one particularly exciting instance where lavender cookie dough was quickly and irrevocably turned black.
The top of the insect jar had a small hole leading into a glass cylinder which looked to be filled with white cotton. Daisy expertly squeezed he eyedropper into the chamber and wrinkled her nose. “It smells weird. Kind of like fruit, but not as good”. I kept my eyes fixed on the butterfly, now opening and closing its wings at the bottom of the jar. “Alright, now we need to wait for a little while…until..until it’s ready.” I finally finished.
“Okay, can I watch tv?” She asked brightly.
Grateful for a distraction, I gestured in the direction of the living room. Daisy carefully picked up the jar and turned, wrapping it in both arms like a hug. I froze, then started to call out, arm outstretched before freezing again. Should she watch it die though? Would she even understand the gravity of what she was watching? She was just so goddamn lighthearted and complacent right now. Last year, her fish, Tidal Wave, had been belly-up one morning and she cried for three goddamn days. We had to have a whole funeral for christssake. Would her face crumble and her shoulders start heaving when we lifted the still body out of the jar?
She was a smart child. Surely she understood what had to happen in order to keep the butterfly “forever”. This wasn’t a beloved pet, it was science; detached, educational.
4.Mount butterfly while still fresh. Once dried out, the body will become brittle and easily damaged.
Use forceps to carefully extract and align body with groove in the center of the mounting board and gently push down wings until flat against the surface. Pin body through the center of the thorax between the bases of the fore wings.
I shuttered involuntarily, imagining the soft crunch she’d feel in her hands. Oh god, what if it broke in half or fell apart or some other audacious display of it’s complete and utter lack of life. I snatched the box and re-read the back: ages 6+. She had turned 7 in September. She was fully qualified to feel that soft crunch. Brought to you by the Easter Bunny.
“David Stokes said there was blood everywhere…”
Suddenly she appeared from around the corner. “Okay Daddy, I think she’s asleep.” She held up the jar to her face level to show the Monarch motionless on it’s side.
It was such an easy, painless white lie. The kind of lie parents told to their children all the time…for their benefit, really. It wasn’t even really lying, it was shielding. Honestly, we should have used that for the fish then replaced the damn thing. She would understand when she was older. It didn’t make sense to hold Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny in one hand, then deal the devastating blow of death with the other. I was her father and I would know when the time was right.
I smiled, buoyed by this decision, and lifted the jar from her hands as she sat at the table. “Okay, then let’s do this”. I placed the mounting board in front of her while reading selected excerpts from the directions – though replacing “body” with “butterfly”. She gently lifted the butterfly by one delicate wing with the plastic forceps and placed in on the board where I gestured to the groove. Luckily the wings fell flat, eliminating more possibility of damage I would need to explain. I lifted the pins and hesitated. “Remember when you got your ears pierced?” All part of the greater good. She frowned and nodded, touching her cubic zirconia studs. Her ‘diamonds’. Another white lie. “This is kind of the same thing. We’ll just put one of these on the very outer edge of each side, real quick and careful.” I reached out and stuck in the first pin to emphasize the casualness of the process. The pin went in not even recognizing the thinness of the wing, resisting only slightly against the foamboard. Daisy picked up a pin and frowned, uncertain. “Here, I’ll help.” I said quickly, not wishing to delay her contemplation. I placed my fingers over hers and repeated the process. I also helped with the next, then she confidently did the final pin on her own. Hopefully the wings would be strong enough to hold. I couldn’t find a relatable scenario for driving a pin through the middle of its body. Here sweetie, just like that boy shot Mr. Tucker straight through his goddamn chest!
She reached out for the mounting board and held it up in both hands smiling. “I’m gonna put it in my room!” She declared, tottering off down the hallway. I exhaled slowly, thinking longingly of the origami bird kit I had debated getting her last week. How long could a butterfly sleep?
I made the decision to creep in after she had fallen asleep and simply take it. I’d say it flew away in the night, maybe up the chimney. My feet were quiet on the faded grey rug, as I made my way to her desk gently picked up the mounting board and plucked the pins from the butterfly’s wings. It’s body had stiffened significantly by this point, but it was almost perfectly intact. Daisy’s breath was slow and deep as I placed the board back on the desk and set the pins underneath. Or should I put them back in the board? No, that would indicate some disturbing ripping imagery. The butterfly, revitalized by sleep will simply have shook away the pins and took flight. Satisfied with this version of events, I padded back to my room, placed the butterfly in my nightstand to be dealt with another time, and fell into a sound sleep.
The next morning, I woke early to prepare for an overnight business trip. Annie sat peacefully, sipping coffee out on the patio, unaware of yesterday’s many hurdles. Daisy came down as I finished preparing her oatmeal, clutching the empty mounting board.
“She’s gone.” She said, distress creasing her forehead; an early warning sign of tears without intervention.
I plastered a sympathetic smile on my face before swooping her into my arms and reciting last night’s explanation with all the appropriate clucking and soothing tones.
“So she’s back with her friends?” Daisy asked a little more brightly.
I nodded, pleased with the uptick in mood. “She just came to visit for a little while, but she probably missed her home, just like you would.”
Daisy finally nodded thoughtfully, her face smoothing back out.
Relieved, I said my goodbyes before leaving on the business trip, silently vowing to figure out a plan to neutralize the mounting kit before I got back. Maybe I could just replace it with something more exciting and she’d simply forget about it.
However, as I returned, the mounting kit was the furthest thing from my mind. Tired and eager for a stiff drink, I trudged up the stairs, but before I could grab the door, it flew open and Daisy bounded out, eyes glittering.
“Dad, I have to show you something!” She exclaimed, dancing around me, pulling at my arms.
“Okay, okay.” I sighed, gently swatting her away. “Just give me a few minutes to relax”
She followed me into the kitchen, hovering as I shrugged out of my jacket and attempted to sit peacefully with my unsatisfying glass of water. Finally, I relented to her expectant stare, and allowed her to drag me upstairs by the arm. As we hit the top of the stairs, an odd, sweet smell filled my nose. Not unfamiliar. It hit me a second before we reached her room.
Every available surface was covered with butterflies. Monarch butterflies. All quiet and still, like a solid sheet of them had just fallen from the spring sky and landed delicately in my daughter’s room. It was impossible to even say where one started and ended, the oranges and blacks weaving together in a fractured kaleidoscope. The only one I could distinguish was the single butterfly pinned in the center of the mounting board.
I gaped as Daisy walked proudly forward, next to the window. A sunbeam once again illuminating her blonde hair and rosy skin.
“I remembered exactly how we did it!” Daisy declared excitedly. “I caught one butterfly and I’m sure she was the same one I had before. But I remembered what you said about her missing her friends, so I caught as many as I could so she could stay! Oh, do you think she’ll stay now, dad?”
Somewhere in my periphery on the nightstand I thought I saw a leg twitch. I closed my mouth and opened it again, unsure if words or bile would escape. I managed neither. I looked at my daughter, eagerly awaiting my praise, still bathed in the seraphic window light. My daughter, first grader, believer in the Easter bunny, devout fish owner, oblivious leader of genocide against the monarch butterfly. Or…now I almost choke on stifled laughter, if the butterflies are monarchs, does that make it regicide?
Molly Williams is from Richmond, VA, where she works as a photography and graphic design teacher. This is her first short story.